Sirrus squinted his eyes against the snow, wishing he’d taken care to bring some real goggles from Myst so he wouldn’t be compelled to rely on the crude masks fashioned by the Talen’ar. There was a trick to it, or so Amelu told him, a way of filtering the noise out of his vision so he could perceive the things that he desired to see. But Amelu had refused to explain the trick any further, leaving Sirrus to stare helplessly into the whiteness ahead of him, a whiteness like that of a blank page waiting for ink. There were shadows dimly visible, and Sirrus thought they were the shapes of men, even if they seemed too large. For a moment he imagined that the barren old trees planted along the west cliff’s edge had torn their roots from the ground and were walking through the storm, but with a grimace he dismissed the foolish image.
He fumbled in his pack with a gloved hand and found the whistle there. He put it to his lips, which were protected by smeared fat from the bitter cold, and blew until his ears couldn’t bear with the dreadful noise any longer. It was quite certain now that he would be found either by other other hunters or by the wolves. One way or the other, at least this intolerable situation would be over.
One of the shapes like men was moving closer. With the snow driving down all around it, it seemed less and less human the more Sirrus watched it. It was more like something coiled and slithering, and as it approached he felt a growing sense of alarm. He remembered now the fireside stories Amelu and the others had told, about the troll that appeared suddenly out of the snow to seize and strangle its victims. They said that a handful of men had been killed already this season. He lifted his spear and waited for the shape to reach him.
“Sirrus!” it called. He was relieved to recognize the voice as Achenar’s, for just an instant before his relief was overwhelmed by irritation. Of course Achenar wouldn’t be lost in the snow. This was his element, after all. Achenar wouldn’t be longing for a warm room with a fireplace and thick blankets and a charming woman. He probably loved nothing more than the chance to carve up some giant beast with a hatchet, and only wanted some mechanical gadget to tinker with to complete his ecstasy.
“Dear brother!” Sirrus called back. “I seem to have wandered from our path. I must have lost track of the guide ropes.”
“What do you mean, guide ropes?” asked Achenar, missing the joke as usual. As he came face to face with Sirrus, Sirrus wondered what expression he was wearing behind his goggles and mask. Was he scowling, was he grinning, was his face twitching in that irritating fashion of his? “It’s the way things really are, isn’t it?”
“The guide ropes, you mean?”
“No!” He took Sirrus’s arm in a painful grip and said, “The snow, whirling around in all those lying patterns! But there’s nothing really there behind them.”
“Will you still be saying that, I wonder, if one of those tigers leaps on us?”
“If one of those tigers leaps on us, then either we or it will be stripped of our skin and revealed as what we really are.”
“And what is that, dear brother?” As much as Sirrus hated to admit it to himself, he was feeling better now that Achenar was here with him. The thought was as repellent as a worm in a mango and he cast it away in an instant. If Achenar wanted to freeze his loins in this wasteland, that was only another indication of how twisted his mind was. He had taken to the hunt like a fish to water—no, like a snake to water.
“A flower,” Achenar said, and laughed.
When they returned to the main party of hunters, there was a great deal of joking at Sirrus’s expense, which he tolerated with gritted teeth. The only thing that permitted him to retain his composure was the reflection that these were only people in a book, summoned into existence by his father’s imagination. Why should he care if they laughed at him? Characters in a story, laughing and mocking the author who was about to shut the cover.
“We found the beast’s trail while you were off building snowmen,” said Dalumu. He gestured to a depression in the snow, which was barely visible to Sirrus’s eyes. If it hadn’t been pointed out to him, he never would have noticed it. “We’ll catch up to him in about an hour, if there aren’t any more delays.” The smugness in his voice was almost intolerable.
As the hunters set out again, Sirrus kept in the middle of their group to avoid being separated this time. Amelu clapped him on the back and said, “So, Sirrus, my friend, is it worth it?”
“Is what worth what?” Sirrus replied. At least these garments were warm enough that he didn’t suffer too much from the cold.
“Getting that ivory for Saruki. You must be up to your nose in love.”
“At this point I would be a fool to turn back. I ask her for a kiss, and she tells me to give her a taki amulet. I bring her a taki amulet and she says the ivory needs to be from my own hunt. I would look horribly stupid if I came back empty-handed.”
Amelu raised his hands in the air, his people’s gesture of indifference. “You know best, but there are plenty of pretty girls in Talenā, and even a few in Turabā. Plenty of names to etch on your heart.”
“But I want Saruki.” For a moment he thought he could see her thin face with its confident, knowing smile in the snow ahead. Then the illusion was broken by the sound of Dalumu’s voice.
“Ya! See the trumpeter, see the earth-shaker! See the king of the ice! See the god of winter!”
But Sirrus could see nothing, not until the lucifers shot their flares into the sky, and then it filled half his vision: the looming dark shape that filled the dreams of every Talen’ar man and woman. Sirrus’s own dreams too. As a child he had been terrified of one of Nanna’s drawings, a creature that she called an elephant. On many a night he had dreaded that he would wake in the morning to see its legs among the trees of the forest, trunks with gray bark rather than red. Now it stood before him, but larger than his worst nightmare and with a multitude of tusks sprouting under its trunk, four or six on each side. For a moment hunters and beast were frozen alike, and then it charged.
The sound of its trumpeting filled Sirrus’s ears until he could hear no easier than he could see. Panic seized him and he dropped his spear and fled with no idea of where he was going except that it had to be away from the beast. Only when he couldn’t hear the noise any longer did he stop and fall over into the snow, utterly exhausted. The thought came to him that now he was going to die, lost and alone, just as Father had said when he warned him and his brother about going beyond the lamp posts at the edge of Talenā. He began to laugh, and laughed even harder when it occurred to him that he sounded just like Achenar.
“Sirrus! Is that you?” It was Dalumu, and Sirrus wondered for a moment whether being rescued by him was worth it. But only for a moment.
“I’m over here!” he replied. After a few seconds Dalumu’s form appeared over him and he held out his hand for Dalumu to pull him up. As Dalumu raised him, he saw an amulet hanging down from his neck, black in color and round in shape, with a symbol etched in its center. He recognized the symbol and knew its significance immediately.
When Dalumu was still helping him up, Sirrus used his other hand to draw his knife from his belt, and swiftly cut his throat. Dalumu didn’t have a chance to defend himself or even react. Sirrus rolled out of the way as Dalumu’s blood poured out of him. He was dead in seconds.
“She belonged to me,” Sirrus muttered as he piled heaps of snow over the body. “You all belong to me.”
It was Achenar who found him again, of course. He sounded even testier than usual: it seemed that their prey had escaped them. “We’ll get him next time,” he said. “We will!”
Rather than rejoin the main group of hunters, Sirrus and Achenar returned to Talenā along the path of the red lamps. As they walked, Sirrus said, “I killed a man today.”
“I’ve killed three so far.”
“Try to leave some alive for me to have my fun with,” said Sirrus. He looked up into the sky, where there should have been stars but where the gray clouds continued to pour down snow without end.